Pompeo meets Afghan political rivals during visit to Kabul

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[March 23, 2020]  By Humeyra Pamuk

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital on Monday on a previously unannounced visit to try to salvage a historic deal between Washington and the Taliban, struck in February but marred by a political feud.

Pompeo visited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at his palace before meeting his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom say they are Afghanistan's rightful leader following a disputed election in September.

Their standoff has stalled the selection of a negotiating team to represent the Afghan government in planned talks with the Taliban.

A senior State Department official said the purpose of Pompeo's visit was to try to mediate a solution between the two men. He is scheduled to hold meetings later with both together.

"The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved...soon, that could affect the peace process... Our agreement with the Talibs could be put at risk," the official said, adding it was unclear whether a resolution would be found during the one-day visit.

The Afghan government was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban deal, signed in Doha on Feb. 29. But the agreement aimed to pave the way for the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and included a pact to withdraw foreign troops that would effectively end the United States' longest war.

The Afghan government and the Taliban have not begun formal negotiations as planned, hampered by disagreement over the release of prisoners and the feud between Ghani and Abdullah.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media at the State Department in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spent much of his time in Kabul since the deal signing, made a plea to both sides last week to act fast on the release of prisoners, a condition the Taliban have set for the talks.

Khalilzad said the coronavirus pandemic added urgency for the release.

With 40 infections in Afghanistan, fears are growing that the thousands returning home from neighboring Iran every day might fuel the outbreak in a nation with a public health network devastated by years of war.

The Taliban and the Afghan government held a "virtual" meeting on prisoner releases on Sunday, officials said.

In February, Afghanistan's Electoral Commission announced incumbent Ghani as the winner of the presidential election, but Abdullah said he and his allies had won and insisted that he would form a government.

(Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Nick Tattersall)

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